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In "Incendies," family history intertwines with murky Middle East politics

Last year the most powerful film I saw was called Incendies, which translated as “burnt” or “scorched.”  It is based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad.  Incendies is structured as a classic tragedy and, because of current events in the Middle East, resonates more with each passing day.  An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Picture, it is the fourth feature by the very talented, young Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.

The film is a journey and a search both physical and psychic. The story begins in Montreal, when a brother and sister — Jeanne and Simon Marwan — sit down with a notary who reads them the will of their mother, Nawal. The twins receive a pair of envelopes. One is for the father they thought was dead. The other is for a brother they didn’t know existed. Though both twins were born in the Middle East, they know nothing of their parents’ past, a taboo family subject. The specific country is never named. Villeneuve says he was guided in this by the decision Costa Gavras made in his great film Z, to keep the country anonymous and therefore the story universal. We presume Incendies references Lebanon where Wajdi Mouawad, the playwright, was born.

The search first leads Jeanne and then Simon, to their homeland and into their mother’s past. It unravels a murky family history, caught up in continually shifting and often violent Middle East politics. Jeanne’s search begins in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Daresh. She discovers startling and horrific revelations: the father of Nawal’s first baby, the brother she didn’t know existed, was shot by her family. Nawal would eventually aid the Muslim militia, for which she is sent to prison. There she was raped, beaten and tortured. She became known as a woman who sang beautiful songs in the face of torture, and gained mythic stature as “the Woman Who Sings.”

Simon eventually joins Jeanne in the search, only to face a notorious terrorist and warlord who tells him a horrific truth about his father and their brother, Nihad. Nihad, orphaned at an early age, became a boy soldier with an uncanny ability as a sharpshooter. He ended up switching allegiances as over time the winds of conflict shifted.

These revelations are shocking and are amplified by Denis Villeneuve’s remarkable style which keeps the tragic structure of the original play, but substitutes a visual dynamic for verbal dialogue. Shot on locations in Jordan, much of the power of Incendies comes from the way Villeneuve uses the blank, dry landscape to underscore the relentless and senseless civil wars that sweep up individuals and families into their tribal horror.

The film’s great performance belongs to Lubna Azabal as Nawal. The Belgian-born actress pulls off a difficult role  as a woman whose life is a series of tragedies, yet maintains a core strength and resilience. Villeneuve, using a large secondary cast of mostly Jordanian non-actors, achieves an authentic, visceral feel. This is unusual for a filmmaker working on locations, situations and a theme which fall outside his immediate, personal experience.

The situations in Incendies are all stuff of classic tragedy. Villeneuve maintains the tragic framework of the play but it’s the images that are most memorable.  The scenes of Jeanne, the daughter, on a long bus ride to the place where her mother was imprisoned, or the death of the man who fathered Nawal’s first child are riveting and grab you in the pit of your stomach. So is a detailed evocation of the Ain el-Rammaneh Bus Massacre which Villeneuve recreates,  a sequence that is nothing short of devastating.

Though the country remained nameless, the unimaginable violence that ordinary, innocent people face every day and hour could be in today’s Libya, Yemen or Syria, places where people, like the characters in Incendies, are unwittingly caught in cycles of historical struggle which they can’t escape.

As Incendies moves steadily toward its jaw-dropping conclusion we see that this history is an inescapable force and we, the mere players, have little power to affect it. In the end, it is the dignity and courage of Nawal, the mother, in saving and protecting her children and giving them the chance of a new life in Canada that soars above all. What makes it real is that it is the eternal struggle of millions of refugees and immigrants all over the world who escape war to seek peace.

Milos Stehlik's comments reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Chicago Public Media or Worldview.

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